Panic Attacks in Children: 7 Ways Parents Can Help
Your child can’t breathe. They are holding their chest. They are starting to hyperventilate. They want to go to the hospital. They feel like they are dying. You panic. They panic. Welcome to the world of panic attacks in children.
As a parent, you can feel helpless when your child is suffering from panic attacks. It can be scary for both of you. What should you do? How can you help?
What are Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are a physiological occurrence that can happen to children who suffer from anxiety. They can come on suddenly and without warning.
Typically panic attacks can last ten to fifteen minutes, but the fear of having another one can be more debilitating than the panic attacks themselves. Although stress and anxiety can exacerbate the likelihood of having a panic attack, panic attacks can happen at any time – even during sleep.
Common symptoms of a panic attacks in children:
-Feeling dizzy, faint or light headed
-Chest pain and/or heart palpitations
-Numbness or tingling of hands or feet
-Feeling unreal or disconnected
-Fear of dying or losing one’s mind
-Hot or cold flashes
-Feeling nauseous or having gastrointestinal distress
-Trembling or shaking uncontrollably
Sounds nasty, right? It doesn’t feel good either. Trust me, I know. When I went to college I gained new knowledge, as well as a new enemy – panic attacks.
Panic attacks ruled my life for my first year at college. I didn’t know what they were or what was happening to me. With determination and anger – I bullied my panic attacks back and rid my life of them. With patience and time, your kids can too.
As a child therapist, I see the impact panic attacks in children can have on the whole family. Although you may not be able to eradicate panic attacks completely from your child’s world right away, there are some things you can do to help.
#1. Educate them on the signs and symptoms of a panic attack.
When a child is suffering from panic attacks they often think they are dying, and rightfully so. Panic attacks are scary and they feel scary. Their body is having a false alarm, but all the feelings and sensations they are experiencing are real.
Teach your kids that panic attacks are a false alarm in their body. Let them know the physical sensations associated with a panic attack so that when they experience them, it won’t be as scary.
If your child is a pre-teen or teen, have them read books on how to get through panic attacks so they can feel empowered.
YouTube Video for Kids with Panic Attacks:
#2. Make a list of what is helps during panic attacks.
Panic attacks typically last ten to fifteen minutes, but for you and your child, it can feel like a lifetime. When your child is not having a panic attack, get with them and brainstorm activities that they would find calming when in the throes of an attack. This can be vastly different for each child, therefore it is important to sit down and discuss what might work for them.
I always feel that doing an activity that engages the mind (watching TV or reading) is more effective than a passive activity (listening to music or drawing), but each kid is different.
Some ideas you might explore with your child can include:
-Watch your favorite show or YouTube channel
-Look at videos or pictures on your phone
-Text friends for a random conversation
-Look at Instagram
-Play the alphabet game (come up with a word for each letter)
-Play eye spy around the room
-Talk about a fun event that is coming up
-Do jumping jacks
-Jump on a trampoline
-Punch a punching bag
-Use an ice pack on your face
-Run your hands under hot or cold water
-Get a back or head massage
-Take a shower or a bath
Have your child write down positive thoughts that they can read when having a panic attack. These thoughts can help empower them and reduce the acuity of the attack. I also like the idea of kids recording a message that they can watch when they are having a panic attack.
Sometimes it is helpful to personify panic attacks and see it as a character your are trying to defeat. This approach definitely helped me beat panic attacks when I was in college, but it is not for everyone.
Some empowering thoughts might include:
-I am not dying, I am having a panic attack.
-Although panic attacks feel scary, there is nothing medically wrong with me.
-People do not get injured or die from panic attacks.
-My panic attacks always end.
-I am not going crazy, I am having a panic attack.
-I am sick of my panic attack dictator! I am taking back control.
#3. Avoid minimizing their distress.
Try to avoid telling your child things like, “You are okay.” Although this can seem reassuring, when you are going through a panic attack, you are not feeling okay. So, you don’t want your child to feel like you don’t “get it.”
Instead, say things like, “I know you don’t feel okay. Having a panic attack can feel scary. I will help get you through this and it will end soon.”
#4. Remind them that panic attacks always end.
It is good to highlight to your child that panic attacks always end. When in the middle of a panic attack any positive thoughts fly out the window. Helping your child remember that they always get through these attacks will offer some hope.
#5. Help distract them and go to their list.
Teach your child to articulate when they are having a panic attack – if they don’t do that already. When your child is having a panic attack, redirect your child to the list you made together. Pick one or two items from the list and help your child engage in that activity.
#6. Help them to avoid the panic attack trap.
The worst part about panic attacks aren’t the panic attacks at all. It is the fear that goes along with panic attacks. People get worried about having another panic attack. They feel exposed and vulnerable to this debilitating feeling.
Often due to this fear, when a child is suffering from panic attacks they will start to avoid activities that they feel will trigger a panic attack.
Unfortunately, this will often include school, restaurants and extracurricular activities. For some kids it can get so bad that they want to be homeschooled. In more extreme cases it can lead to agoraphobia (the fear of leaving one’s house).
Help your kids by not feeding into that cycle. Let them know that this is how panic works. Explain that panic wants you to avoid things – but the more you avoid, the worse the panic grows. The best way to defeat the panic is to face it head on and continue with your life as normal, as hard as that can be.
#7. You can teach kids tips to survive a panic attack in public, such as:
-Look at your phone or photos as a distraction
-Go to the bathroom to get space away from other people
-Go talk to the school nurse or counselor
-Carry mints or gum to help give you a physical distraction
-Keep items in your pocket that help ground you like a worry Stone
-Read a book on your phone
-Text a friend
-Text a parent
-Go outside and get fresh air
Panic attacks are not fun. Luckily the more you build coping mechanisms to defeat them, the quicker they go away. Remember to remain calm when your child is suffering panic attacks. When you are the calm during their storm, they will get through these attacks much quicker.
If you are at a loss as to how to help your child manage anxiety, take the e-course Teach Your Kids to Crush Anxiety taught by a child therapist. Learn all the tools she teaches kids and teach them to your child. You don’t have to feel powerless.